Let’s start by talking about affirmative action.
When I was first hired at The Washington Post, I found I had to repeatedly explain my qualifications to colleagues. So after one staff meeting, I went to the business editor, David Vise, and asked him directly whether he hired me because I was Black.
“Yes, I hired you because you are Black,” he said.
By then, I had eight years of full-time work experience, but I was still considered a young hire for the business section. Vise, who won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990, had recruited me after hearing me speak on a panel about business beat reporting at the annual summer convention for the National Association of Black Journalists. Five months later, I was at The Post.
Vise invited me into his office to continue the conversation in private.
He closed the door and gestured for me to take a seat on the couch.
This was in 1992, and I was 29 years old.
I heard Vise talking, but I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. I was inside my own head.
“So, the newsroom colleagues probing how I came to get the job so fast were right after all,” I told myself.
Fighting back tears, I eventually tuned in to Vise as he explained his answer.
“I also hired you because you’re a woman,” he said. “I hired you because you come from a low-income background and, most importantly, because you are a good reporter. I also hired you because you have enormous potential and I want to mentor you.”
It wasn’t a hasty decision. Before hiring me, Vise and other top Post editors interviewed me for many hours and thoroughly reviewed the stories I had written.
Vise also made reference to the master’s degree in business I was earning from Johns Hopkins University.
He went on to talk about the expertise I had acquired covering bankruptcy proceedings for the Baltimore Evening Sun.
Vise’s answer to my question was powerful and empowering.
The Post hired me, he said, because there had been a slew of Chapter 11 business filings and they needed a reporter with knowledge of how bankruptcies work.
Shortly after I arrived at The Post, I was assigned to cover the financial troubles plaguing the Baltimore Orioles. The owner eventually filed for bankruptcy protection. I broke the story.
Don Graham, the paper’s publisher at the time, came into the newsroom the next morning and congratulated me for beating our local rival, the Baltimore Sun.
Still, professional doubts plagued me at the Sun and followed me to The Post.
I had started my journalism career at the Sun, which awarded me a full academic scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park.
I was the first award winner in the scholarship program, which was created during a time the paper was being criticized for its unfair and racist coverage of the Black community. As a pledge to do better, the Sun promised to train and hire minority journalists. We were nicknamed the “Sun Scholars.” The scholarship included four paid summer internships — two for the morning paper and two for the afternoon paper, the Evening Sun.
I dreaded the internships at the more prestigious morning paper. There were several reporters and editors whom I have no reservations calling racist. They made it clear in the treatment of the Black Sun Scholars — harsher criticism, fewer assignments compared with the White interns — that because we were brought in under a minority scholarship program, we weren’t as qualified as the White interns.
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I once overheard two White reporters talking disparagingly about the minority scholarship winners. They had no idea I was sitting at my desk on the other side of the partition.
It was unfair to create special slots for Black interns, they said.
No matter how well we performed, we were branded as inferior just because we were a part of the diversity scholarship program.
As minorities, we know that some people label us as affirmative-action hires, and that has a profound impact on our self-confidence. We might wonder whether we’re good enough. We hear that White hires got their jobs because of a meritocracy, and we are made to feel as if we took unfair advantage of a system that was weighted in our favor.
But the reality is that favoritism for Whites is so familiar that we just take it for granted. Doors are opened to the children of people in the business. And of course, there is the practice of legacy admission to Ivy League colleges, which confers even more advantages, mainly for White families. But there’s a price to pay when you are the so-called “Black” hire. People question your abilities from Day 1. They wonder whether you are truly competent.
This is the tough and unfair part of affirmative action — the constant questioning of your qualifications to your face or more often behind your back — or within earshot. The insinuations can be so unrelenting.
I once left my desk in a huff after a White male reporter remarked about the increasing number of Black hires at The Post.
“No offense to you,” he said.
At the time, I was one of only two Blacks in the business section, but I listened as my co-worker, someone I liked and admired, complained that perhaps one day soon White men would be an endangered species in the newsroom.
“Stand up,” I told him. “Look around. Do you see a shortage of White men around here?”
In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, now called the News Leaders Association, put out a challenge to the industry: “The commitment to recruit, train and hire minorities needs urgently to be rekindled. This is simply the right thing to do. It is also in the newspaper industry’s economic self-interest.”
The organization began to survey diversity hires. By 2000, the goal was for newsroom personnel to represent the U.S. population.
Overall, people of color represent 21.9 percent of the salaried workforce among newsrooms, according to data collected for the 2019 Newsroom Diversity Survey. (Data collection has been hampered by lack of participation; only 17 percent of papers took part in the 2018 survey, a historical low.)
Racial and ethnic minorities made up 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a 2018 report, Pew found that “newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall.”
In that closed-door meeting 28 years ago, Vise said that I was an asset to The Post. I earned the position because of the totality of who I was — my race, gender, economic background, education and work experience. All of those aspect of my identity gave me a perspective on the news that Vise knew The Post needed.
I continued to weep, in part out of gratitude, in part from relief. Vise had validated what I knew to be true. I deserved to be here at least as much as anyone else.
Next: Education, and the misconception that Black people could earn more money if only they invested in going to college and acquiring qualifications.